This is the second week in this year’s Christmas series… a series we are calling, ‘A Thrill of Hope.’ This title comes from a line in the well-known Christmas carol ‘Oh Holy Night.’ The line goes, ‘A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.’ I’ve sung this carol all my life, but I never paid much attention to those words and I certainly never seriously thought about the phrase ‘A thrill of hope.’ But when I did stop to consider that line in preparation for this sermon, I realized that it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I even went around to members of our staff and asked them what the phrase ‘A Thrill of Hope’ meant and almost to a person the first response I got was a long, blank stare. They all eventually tried to explain it, but no one was very certain. And since I am someone who dislikes uncertainty, I decided to get to the bottom of this and I started by looking at the etymology of the word ‘thrill.’ Now, I knew that the carol was written in the mid 1800’s and so my first thought was, ‘Did the word thrill change in meaning over time like so many other words have done?’ And guess what? It had! The older meaning of the word ‘thrill’ was ‘to puncture something; to break through a hard surface. It meant to burst on the scene through some kind punched-through opening. This is why we now say something is ‘thrilling.’ It is a sudden burst of energy or emotion that comes out of nowhere and takes us by surprise. I don’t know if the writer of ‘Oh Holy Night’ meant thrill to be used like this, but it sure seems so. ‘A thrill of hope’ under this older definition would mean something like ‘an unexpected burst of hope that breaks through a hard wall of weariness.’ And my goodness, I can see why a sudden breakthrough of hope would make ‘the weary world rejoice.’ And isn’t this what the Christmas story is all about? Isn’t Christmas the story of a sudden, unexpected burst of hope breaking into our weary world in the form of a newborn baby? I think it is!
But if there was one character in the Christmas story that would not have been naturally inclined to see the coming of this newborn baby as a ‘thrill of hope’ it would have been the baby’s mother… Mary. Last week we looked at Zachariah, John the Baptist’s father and there was much in Zachariah’s story that led to hope… first off, Zachariah’s wife, Elizabeth miraculously became pregnant with her first child in her old age and that was certainly hopeful. And Zachariah was told by an angel that this child would herald the coming of the Messiah. Zachariah’s story is one of hope bursting into an otherwise weary world. But Mary’s story is completely different. Let’s look at her story in Luke 1 starting at verse 26 on page 849. 26In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, (again this is John the Baptist’s mother, Zacharias’ wife) God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greeting favored woman! The Lord is with you!” 29Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. A couple of things. The angel Gabriel, is always the bearer of big, unexpected news in the Bible. And in this case, he’d been sent to Nazareth in Galilee with some big, unexpected news for a virgin named Mary. When we read that Mary was engaged to Joseph we cannot think of her engagement like we think of engagements today. The Roman emperor Augustus had declared that the legal, minimum age for a girl to be engaged was 10 and the Jewish rabbis had declared that 12 was minimum marrying age for girls; most girls were married off right around the age of 13. And when I said, ‘married off’ I do mean ‘married off.’ Girls were simply considered to be a liability after a certain age and so getting them married once they were of ‘marrying age’ was job one for fathers. And fathers arranged these marriages without much, if any, consultation with the bride or the groom. Boys had to be at least 14 to marry, but most men got married at around the age of 30. Generally, most couples never really met until after the deal was done. Now, once an engagement had been arranged couples could speak to one another, but only in the presence of other family members. They could never be alone. Engagements tended to last a year or so, but it still wasn’t unusual was for the wedding day to be the first day a couple had any real time with one another. Now we don’t know how old Mary was, but the best bet would be that she was about 14, the age of an 8th grade girl. We also don’t know Joseph’s age. He could have been close to the normal marrying age of around 30 or even younger, but most scholars believe that Joseph was somewhat older… that he’d lost his first wife, that he had a number of children to raise, and he was marrying Mary primarily to have someone help care for his children. Truth is we aren’t given these details. What we do know is why Gabriel’s appearance and greeting “Greeting favored woman! The Lord is with you!” confused and disturbed Mary. She was a young girl in a world that honored age. She was a young girl in a world run by older men. She was a poor villager in a society that favored the city rich over rural poor. My bet is that she couldn’t think of one good reason that she would be called ‘favored’ by Gabriel. But Gabriel didn’t go into the details of her status with God; he simply said in verse 30, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Enough said! And then he explained exactly what being so favored was going to look like for Mary. 31You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Now, what Gabriel said here is amazing: Mary would be the mother of the great King who would establish God’s never-ending kingdom; her son would be the Messiah, the highly anticipated Savior the Jewish people had longed to see for centuries! This was an astounding proclamation! But Mary wasn’t paying much attention to the grandeur of Gabriel’s pronouncement. She was stuck on his first words. 31You will conceive and give birth to a son. And her response is understandable. “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” Mary, even though she was a poor, young girl from a small rural village, still knew exactly how babies were made. And don’t let anyone tell you that the word used here in the Greek (Parthenos) means anything other than ‘not having ever been with a man.’ She was, in the strict, physical sense, a virgin. And Gabriel’s response is interesting… he’d clearly been prepped for Mary’s question. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37For the word of God will never fail.” In other words, God through the power of The Holy Spirit would be at work creating something within Mary… and the proof that this was going to happen was that Mary’s elderly relative, Elizabeth, the woman that people had been calling ‘barren’ for decades was six months pregnant! And then Gabriel added, ‘If God says something will happen, no matter how impossible it seems to you, it will happen!’ Again, enough said!
Now as thrilling as all of this sounds, Mary being pregnant, even with a child that would be called ‘the Son of God,’ wouldn’t have been a good thing… at least not in the minds of almost everyone else in Mary’s life. In everyone else’s mind, she would be damaged goods… damaged beyond redemption, mind you. This pregnancy would bring unending shame to her and to her family. Joseph and his family most likely wouldn’t want to have anything to do with her and she would be branded as someone who was willing to risk the honor of her family and her entire future for something as unacceptable as sex with ‘someone’ right before her marriage. For most 14-year-old, 1st Century girls, hearing that they were going to be pregnant out of wedlock and their defense was, ‘This happened by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit’ would have sounded like a death sentence… a literal death sentence in some families. Even when you throw in all the positives that Gabriel mentioned, things like ‘Your son will be great,’ or ‘He’ll be called the Son of God,’ even ‘He will sit on the throne of David and reign over Israel forever,’ for most young girls these things would have been relatively unhelpful. All most young girls would have been able to think about was the shame of the coming 9 months and the lifetime of disgrace that was headed their way. Amazingly, Mary’s response is very different, though. “I am the Lord’s servant. The word in the Greek is literally ‘slave.’ May everything you have said about me come true.” And I just have to ask, ‘Who is this young lady?’ No wonder she was favored.
Luke goes on to tell us in verse 39, A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town 40where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. 41At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
42Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. 43Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? 44When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” Ancient people believed that babies in the womb were in full control of their behavior: babies could praise God in the womb, they could respond to the events outside of the womb and it was even believed that babies could sin in the womb. It makes sense that Elizabeth would see her baby ‘leaping’ in her womb as a recognition of something special about Mary’s visit. It also makes sense that Mary would have hurried off to the hill country of Judea to be with Elizabeth. This would have been 3-day, 70-mile, dangerous journey for a single, 14-year-old girl, by the way. Yet, Mary knew she needed to get away… she needed to get herself ready for the coming social onslaught… she would soon have to tell her parents, who oddly play no role in this story at all… she would soon have to face Joseph and his family… she would soon have to deal with the residents of Nazareth, a small, rural village of about 1500 people, where everyone knew everything about everyone. Mary needed to steel her resolve before she walked into the worst possible public scrutiny a young girl could face in her world. She was pregnant and unmarried in a world that wasn’t prone to taking, ‘The Holy Spirit made me pregnant’ as an explanation. But once again we see that Mary wasn’t your normal girl. She had the ability to see beyond her own circumstances and place what was happening to her in the larger picture of God’s promise to save all of Israel. Look at her response to Elizabeth’s greeting. “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. Even in the face of her circumstances she begins with praise. 47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! 48For he took notice of his lowly servant girl. The literal Greek here says ‘He has looked upon the humiliation of his slave girl.’ and from now on all generations will call me blessed. 49For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. She was right about all generations eventually calling her blessed, but it certainly wasn’t something that would have been evident in the moment. But she was confident that God would be good to her in the future because he had been so good to her in the past. That is amazing faith. And then she turned a corner and started talking about things from a much higher perspective. 50He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51His mighty arm has done tremendous things!And she then lists out some of the ‘tremendous things’ God has done… and notice how they are all turnabouts on injustice! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. 52He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. 54He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. 55For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.” Mary could see that what was happening to her, to this a young, unimportant girl, was all a part of God’s desire to bring justice into a very unjust world. In fact, it almost seems like she understood why it made sense that she was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah; God has been about turning the tables forever: scattering the proud and exalting the humble; filling the hungry and turning the rich away. Mary must have believed that God would not only do what he said he would do through this baby in her womb, but she even accepted that if her part in God keeping his promises meant she would have to suffer humiliation and shame, it would all be worth it. Mary could see that what was happening to her was just a small part in God plan to bring salvation and justice to his entire broken world… and her response to this realization was praise. Again, who is this girl?
This passage ends with Mary staying with Elizabeth for about 3 months. We aren’t told if she stayed until Elizabeth delivered her son John or not. All we are told is that she returned to her home… or literally, in the Greek to her house. Can you imagine that moment? Telling mother and father… knowing someone would have to tell Joseph… knowing that the rumors would start spreading… And yet we know that within Mary’s heart hope had broken in… hope had broken through the wall of the confusion and the despair that could have overshadowed Mary’s life. Mary knew that God was on the move bringing salvation, justice and healing to his broken world and that she had been given a role in seeing this accomplished… Mary, a young nobody, a girl of no particular importance, a girl from no place… on the road to nowhere, with nothing to look forward to beyond becoming the wife of a local carpenter… this girl was chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. She of all people had been noticed by God, found his favor and been given a task that would help change the world.
And boy does this speak to me! First off, who among us doesn’t know what it feels like to be from the bottom of the barrel? I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered, ‘What on earth do I have that will help with anything?’ There are always people who are smarter, more connected, more engaging, talented, well-spoken or funny. I could go on and on. I often wonder, ‘What good am I? Why would God ever even consider calling me to anything?’ And yet knowing Mary’s story gives me a thrill of hope. God wisely and wondrously chose the last person anyone would have expected to be his son’s mother. And I am confident that he is still using those of us who have felt the humiliation of being ‘less than’ to further his kingdom. In fact, I am confident that it is God’s desire to use those of us who have felt the humiliation of being ‘less than’ to do all sorts of amazing things to further his kingdom.
Something else that speaks to me from this story is how Mary had to face difficulties from people who didn’t know or want to believe the whole story. What we read later in the story of Jesus’ life is that people who didn’t think much of Jesus referred to him as ‘Mary’s son.’ No one in Jesus’ day called a man by his mother’s name unless they weren’t sure who his father was. What this means is that decades later the locals were still making condescending, gossipy remarks about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. And boy do I understand that. And I’m sure some of you are going through that kind of a time now… there are people in your life that don’t know the facts… people that are making things difficult for you and they are operating under the false notion that they know all about it. Mary’s story tells us that this will happen… that God is aware of it and the best thing to do is to hold your head up, march into the world’s brokenness and trust God. Knowing Mary’s story gives me a thrill of hope. Her story tells me that God clearly stood by Mary… he gave her wonderful relatives that understood her circumstances, a husband that we all know took her in and loved her even in the face of public shame and God was with her as she moved into the brokenness of her world. And I am confident that he is also standing with those of us who have felt the humiliation of being misunderstood and maligned. In fact, I am confident that it is God’s desire to stand with those of us who have felt the humiliation of being misunderstood and maligned… he wants us, like Mary, to hold our heads up, to move into the world’s broken situations and trust him.
Mary’s story says this to me: do not lose hope. Yes, the world can seem a weary place… and yet in the midst of the weariness there is reason to rejoice. A thrill of hope has broken through… a hope that comes from someone, Jesus, our savior, the Messiah, who, were he to greet you today would say to you, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored. I am with you. Do not be afraid. Let’s walk together into a new and glorious morn.’